Some of the best musicians and songwriters in the world are not always the ones selling out arenas or booking theater tours, or putting out records every other year in a well-ordered release cycle. Sometimes they’re the guy or girl you’ve never heard of that works a desk job and has a home studio in their guest bedroom’s walk-in closet, maybe playing the occasional open mic or local bar gig. Sometimes it’s only the level of commitment and the priorities of life that separate the professional from the amateur musician, not a gulf of talent or the appeal of the music.
The willingness to sacrifice family life, stability, and creature comforts is what all musicians must commit to if they’re going to make it through the lean years before developing a fan base and finding recognition. These sacrifices are also what keep so many great musicians scared of taking that leap, sometimes regretting later in life that they didn’t give their passion of music a shot when they were still young enough to endure long van rides and crashing on lumpy couches.
This was the story of Chris Stalcup for over 20 years as he held down a day job; all the while the idea of making it as a musician looming in the back of his head. But you couldn’t tell that from the road weary warble of his voice, or the level of authenticity in the songs he pens.
From Atlanta, GA, Chris Stalcup, in middle age, along with his backing band The Grange, decided a while back to give music the ol’ gung-ho, resulting in Stalcup losing many of the things he’d avoided music full time for so many years to keep, namely his love interest. It was life imitating art if you will, but if the lack of a head start has hindered Chris Stalcup in the young man’s game of music, he sure hides it well on his most recent album Downhearted Fools.
Full of true-to-life stories run through a gritty filter, Downhearted Fools is Chris Stalcup singing about what he finds right smack dab under his nose—the adversities and self-doubts that smack him in the face like every rising sun so rudely blasting through tattered shades, reminding one of the heartbreaks and sordid affairs of the night before in the way only the throbbing reality of morning can amplify.
Chris Stalcup’s songs have that authenticity through specificity in how he takes names and places from his own narrative, and delivers them with such love and conviction you might as well be like listening to the names and places of your own particular situation. There’s also a kind of epic scope to this record in how each song refuses to expire without getting its hard-earned point across, even if it takes seven minutes. Stalcup’s “Pete and Clyde” about his two grandparents pounds home the stories of these two men until their existence is palpable in the mind of the listener. By the end of “Ogeechee River,” you feel like you’ve forded that body of water yourself.
Like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Chris Stalcup has the propensity to talk a lot of shop in his music about playing music and traveling on the road and such, so perhaps fellow musicians will find the music speaking more to them than the folks they play for.
Call it country, or call it classic country rock, but the song “(Don’t Le Me) Die Lonely” sounds like an outtake straight from the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers sessions, while the slide work on “However You Want Me” conjures ghosts of Duane Allman. The use of some steel guitar and Southern harmonies keeps the notion you can consider this country music hanging around throughout the record, but if nothing else, it’s indisputably Southern and rootsy. The sound of the music aside though, it’s the weary voice of Stalcup, which is ugly in a beautiful way like an old bombed out house, and is perfect for the songs he writes, that keeps you sticking around.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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The Grange is Paul Barrie, Phil Skipper, Michael Westbrook, and Bret Hartley.